Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Bethuel Mbugua: Genius or charlatan?

Published on 13/09/2009

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Bethuel Mbugua: Genius or charlatan?

Genius med studentBy Joe Kiarie

He was enrolled in secondary school when he was only seven years old. He had lectured in about 300 universities and secondary schools in East Africa by the age of ten. Thanks to his brainpower, he wined and dined with presidents and ministers all over the world.

This is none other than Bethuel Mbugua, the child genius who awed millions of people and hit newspaper headlines in the 1980s and 1990s for perfecting an art that many people could only dream of.

Bethuel Mbugua. As a boy, he possessed rare intellectual prowess that captured the nation’s interest, yet he failed an IQ test to prove he is a genius

Now 30 and armed with a Masters degree in Public Health, Mbugua is contemplating returning to Kenya to take up leadership in the health sector, and maybe in politics.

He is currently based in India, working as a project officer for the International Clinical Epidemiology Network.

"I am looking for opportunities to pursue my doctorate here but if not, I will do it at home."

He says this will give him a sense of permanency after five years of travelling all over the world.


Right from an early age, Mbugua’s intellectual prowess was obvious according to his parents, Paul Mwaura and Ruth Wanjiru. By the time he was in primary school in 1985 in Londiani, he had mastered the human anatomy, a feat that takes professionals years.

By the time he was in Standard Six in 1986, he was rated too bright for his class and taken to Form Four at Ol Kalou Secondary School. But he was kicked out after a month because other students and even local residents started disrupting classes asking him to lecture them.

"One day students in the maths class propped me up on a table and asked me to teach them something. Without hesitation I drew different parts of the brain," he recalls.

This was followed by whirlwind tours where the young man gave to different groups for two years. Scholars attached to Nakuru Provincial Hospital were so impressed by the boy’s academic exploits that they advised him to seek entry to a school for the gifted.

But with no money and no one to assist, Mbugua’s father plotted a famous sneak-in that brought the boy face-to-face with then President Moi.

The bold walk

The eight-year-old was to make a move and walk to the President on the VIP dais during a Harambee at Kijabe Hospital.

"I had a ready speech and when nudged by my father I walked to the President," he says.

When he got to the steps of the dais, security officers rushed to him but were stopped by the then Vice President Mwai Kibaki who was seated next to the President.

Mbugua with friends in the US (left)

"Pengine ana mchango yake (Maybe he is bringing his contribution)," he recalls the VP’s words.

Images of President Moi leaning over with his hand on Mbugua’s back, his neck outstretched and the young boy trying to reach his ears were all over the newspapers the following day.

This, he says, was one of the most historic moments of his life.

By 1988, Mbugua had become a familiar face in the newspapers. But it came to a sudden end when it was proposed that he be subjected to an IQ test, which was administered by Dr David Kabithe. According to the findings, the boy was just a good actor who could not tell the difference between Hamburg and a hamburger.

A laughing stock

Comic strips of the boy filled the newspapers as politicians capitalised on the saga by urging that Mbugua be taken back to primary school with children his age. That marked the end of the media blitz.

Mbugua signs autographs

But his father was not willing to let go of the dream of his son making his way abroad and the two illegally crossed the border into Tanzania to seek help from the American embassy there. Then 12, Mbugua had not attended a class for six years and says it is while at Namanga en route to Tanzania that reality dawned on him.

"I realised I was getting older and was no longer the little boy who impressed people with his science knowledge," he says.

In Dar es Salaam, their efforts to secure education asylum via the American embassy and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees proved futile. After two weeks with fellow Kenyan asylum seekers, a dejected father and son ended up in a rented house near the University of Dar es Salaam. It was during later visits to the university that they met a computer science professor, who asked Mbugua to give a lecture at the university.

This was well planned with posters put up around the campus and the lecture then took place, attended even by the former President Julius Nyerere and the then President Ali Mwinyi.

Stroke of luck

"It was a lecture I enjoyed and the audience laughed, applauded and had a good time. What followed were newspapers articles, and just like Kenya, people followed me whenever I went asking for autographs and photo opportunities," he recalls.

The Day of the African Child followed soon afterwards and Mbugua, having previously criticised the Kenya government for neglecting the education of children, was invited to give a speech at the "Uhuru" Park in Dar es Salaam.

He was part of the Tanzanian Health minister’s entourage and gave a lively speech dubbed ‘End Apartheid’, which was dedicated to his fellow children suffering in South Africa.

Mbugua whispers something to then President Moi. Photos: Courtesy

Later in August, Kenyatta University held an international mathematics conference in Nairobi and Mbugua was invited to attend. During the photo session for participants, including the then Finance minister Prof George Saitoti, Mbugua found himself standing next to a lady called Lenore Blum.

"Little did I know that she would take a very risky step that drastically and dramatically changed the course of my life," he notes.

Lenore asked Mbugua why he was present there despite his tender age and he explained his circumstances to her. She sought to meet his father and that happened the following day.

Things happened fast and Lenore soon informed Mbugua that she had even called her husband in San Francisco asking him how he would feel if she was to bring back with her an African boy.

Lenore and Mbugua’s father submitted a letter to the American embassy authorising her to be Mbugua’s guardian while in the US. After a few months, he was on a plane headed for the USA in a journey sponsored by both Lenore and Kenya Airways. That was on October 20, 1991, the day that marked the onset of a new era in Mbugua’s life.

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